I’m writing this post after needing to step away from a heated debate I was having earlier on Mastodon. I’m not going to repeat it all verbatim, but the gist was that new numbers are in. While user accounts have surged, thanks to Musk, a million or so have no activity – meaning either they are junk accounts or simply abandoned. This caused a discussion to happen about the federated nature of Mastodon (specifically, ActivityPub which is the protocol that Mastodon runs on top of). Particularly, and I may be misunderstanding but I wasn’t able to get a clear answer, that the fediverse isn’t like email because Google doesn’t just block entire servers (they absolutely do), and this is where I’ve had my first negative experience on Mastodon.
In a nutshell, I was told it’s wrong for servers to refuse to participate in the fediverse; block federation with other servers; have rules and conditions that even exceed the craziness of Musk’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants rule changes. 500 characters isn’t enough to express why this is completely wrong. But this all came when I made a reply that if you don’t like how a server is being ran, you’re free to move your account (and data). While this is a Mastodon-specific feature, it’s been requested to be added to the ActivityPub protocol.
First, it’s absolutely crazy to say that ActivityPub (“fediverse”) isn’t like email. The protocol is designed exactly like email. When you post to the ActivityStream, you are posting a to, from, cc, and bcc. You have an inbox and an outbox. Heck, even the “summary” field in the documentation is explained like a subject line for an email (probably because “subject” has a different meaning).
Second, in an open network, you’re free to communicate with whomever you wish. You’re also free to not communicate with anyone you wish. If a server wants to wall themselves into a private community, then that’s what they want. You don’t have to become a member if that’s not what you want. Further, if a server is abusive or you just don’t like them, you’re free to block them. This happens every day on the Internet. What do you think a RBL is? Or more specifically, DROP list? Which, by the way, is one of my favorite acronyms: Don’t Route Or Peer – meaning, networks in this list should be excluded from communications. They’re bad actors. You can also freely decide if you want to block access to a web server or email server. Or even a whole group of them. I run some services that are not accessed by, or for, anyone outside the United States. So I wall them off from anyone outside the US. Am I doing it to be mean? No. I do it because it serves no purpose (or is illegal) to be accessed from other countries. No one from other countries has legitimate needs to access those so anyone trying to get in is more than likely a threat actor. There are also plenty of garbage websites on the Internet no one should visit. However, I don’t block access to them because no one in my house is going to them. If it becomes an issue, then sure, they will be blocked. But that’s because it’s my network. My network, my rules. My server, my rules. It’s a pretty simple concept.
Third, just because something is online doesn’t give you the right to it. I don’t know why people seem to think that if it’s online, it’s free for the taking. The Internet is not a free for all Halloween candy bowl.
Fourth, “free speech” does not exist unless it’s between you and the government. But my views on “free speech” are this: You have the right to say whatever you want, I have the right to not have to listen to it or host it. And by the very nature of ActivityPub, if something nasty comes across my “feed” (or rather, into my inbox), it’s technically on my server at that point. And just like I do with spammers, I’m free to restrict that ActivityPub’s entire server to my server.
This is why ActivityPub exists – because otherwise, it’s centralized social media and that’s not working out too well.